Ohio primary win seen as springboard for November

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gregory Gantt said that on his drive home from a Mitt Romney rally over the weekend, he listened to a radio commercial about the former Massachusetts governor — then just two minutes later got a phone call with the same message from the Republican front-runner.

Mr. Gantt, Montgomery County GOP leader, said the ads were part of a tidal wave of “robocalls,” mailings, and television and radio spots that Mr. Romney and Rick Santorum are blanketing Ohio with in the countdown to Super Tuesday, the 10-state mega-contest that is the first major test of the candidates’ national organizations.

“Ohio and other primary-state wins can give candidates momentum with delegates, fundraising and organization to keep going. Winning a battleground state like Ohio means that either Romney or Santorum can make the case that they are the best qualified to take on President Obama,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist.

More than 400 delegates will be up for grabs across 10 states, making Tuesday a potential turning point in the chase for the 1,144 delegates needed to wrap up the party’s nomination.

Mr. Romney, riding a three-state winning streak, comes into the week with more delegates than anyone else. Last week, he won the primaries in Arizona and his native Michigan — a result that was muddied by the fact that he split the state’s 30 delegates down the middle with Mr. Santorum, sparking renewed concerns about his struggle to corral the party’s conservative base.

But he helped put some of those concerns to bed on Saturday after he won the Washington caucuses.

Tuesday represents an opportunity to send a powerful statement that he should be the party’s standard-bearer against President Obama — particularly in Ohio, which historically has served as a swing state in presidential elections.

“If Romney captures Ohio, then he can make a legitimate argument that conservative primary voters in the Rust Belt states support him,” Mr. Bonjean said.

Mr. Santorum has led here in the polls since early February, right around the same time he upset Mr. Romney in the Colorado caucuses and also walked away with victories from the Minnesota caucuses and the nonbinding Missouri primary.

Mr. Romney, though, has been gaining steam in recent days after the campaign — and a super PAC supporting his candidacy — invested millions in the state, much of it on negative ads.

“The contest has become very tight,” said Paul A. Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State University. “There was a period very early on where Romney appeared to have Ohio, more or less locked up. Leadership here in Ohio on the Republican side was generally supportive of Romney, and then that kind of disappeared. And what we’ve seen in the last few weeks was a Santorum surge.”

Mr. Beck said voters see Mr. Romney as the best bet to knock off Mr. Obama in November — but they still struggle to connect with the former governor.

“They are not quite confident in him as representing what they believe. Philosophically, he is in the right place, but I think they feel that he doesn’t have, say, the common touch in a way, and they are a bit more comfortable with Santorum in that respect,” he said.

But Mr. Santorum has problems in Ohio, too — especially after saying that reading then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s speech to Baptist ministers in September 1960 made him want to “throw up” and calling Mr. Obama a “snob” for wanting “everybody in America to go to college.”

“I think there are some things Santorum kind of got carried way with that really didn’t play well for him and are creating some doubts in the minds of people who otherwise would be supporting them, I think,” Mr. Beck said. “I think Santorum has his own problem, and the problem is that he has become almost too extreme in his social conservatism.”

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